Father Nicholas: The REAL Santa Claus
When I was very young, some of my classmates would leave their shoes outside the bedroom door on the night of the fifth of December, so that Saint Nicholas would leave them treats. We never did that at our house. But I asked Mom how it was that Saint Nicholas got to be called Santa Claus. By this time I had already determined a connection between the two. But while my mother was salutatorian of her high school class -- there were ten, maybe twelve students, but that's not the point -- she was not one to wear her erudition on her sleeve. So, rather than go into an entymological treatise on the subject, she simply told me: “Say ‘Santa Claus’ three times real fast.” That carried me over for at least a few years.
No good Catholic home is without an answer to the question of whether there is such a thing as Santa Claus. There is, but that is a corruption of his real name, one that developed over the centuries. By the time devotion to Saint Nicholas reached Europe, he was known by different names. In the British Isles, he was known as "Father Christmas." In the Netherlands, he was known as "Sinterklaas," which is how we got the name that people use today. Whatever people call him, the Bishop of Myra in the fourth century is a real person, and he presently dwells in Heaven with the Communion of Saints.
At the little Byzantine Rite parish where my son learned the Faith, the Feast of Saint Nicholas is a really big deal. He is the patron of Byzantine Catholics, and his image generally graces the iconostasis on the far left side as viewed from the assembly. There is a special hymn dedicated to "Father Nicholas," and the children in the Religious Education program do a pageant in his honor every Sunday closest to the sixth of December. It culminates in the arrival of an elderly man with a long white beard, dressed in the robes of an Eastern bishop, with whom the children meet in much the same manner as they would his commercialized counterpart.
Paul used to get special icon cookies to take home, much like the ones that appear in the photos, emblazoned with the words "O Holy Nicholas" in Slavonic. These unique gingerbread cookies are from a recipe which appears at the stnicholascenter.org website.
I dearly miss that little parish. It has changed over the years. My duties at St John the Beloved have prevented me from attending there, and they have begun work on a new, larger place of worship next to the original. It emulates the style common to Eastern Europe, and will be truly grand. But with every successful building project they have -- the parish hall, the new rectory -- the place seems a little less homey, a little larger than life. Still, the spirit of Saint Nicholas reminds them every years, of the things that are passed on, that remain the same.